Russian Diplomacy: Trying to go from the Small Stage to the Big Screen

One of the Russian government’s worries that propelled it to face the conflict in Syria against DAESH was the probability of it morphing into issues within the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The role that Russia has been increasingly playing as a diplomatic partner in the region is entrenching Russia and President Vladimir Putin as the go-to players for security concerns. It was not that long ago though that Russia was in the Western limelight because of its own involvement with Ukraine over the Crimean peninsula, cast as the villain. Is Russia trying to recast its role in Syria, shifting from villain to diplomatic envoy? Some think that Putin is trying to affirm the military’s glory to the Russian people and show the world that Russia cannot be pushed into the background. This strategy, though, is continually stretching the limits of the Russian military, its economic burdens, and the lines of acceptance from the international community.

One region potentially impacted by this is Nagorno-Karabakh, the self-proclaimed autonomous region between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia has been trying to find a diplomatic solution to the dispute, but has been largely unsuccessful in its attempts. Overall, Russia has always remained somewhat closer to Armenia, with Armenia hosting a Russian base within its borders. The contract for that base was recently renewed until 2044. Russia also invited Armenia to be a part of the Eurasian Union. Russia has also started to shift closer to Azerbaijan too, however, selling heavy weapons that it can use to fortify and strengthen its military. The presence of a Russian military base on one side of the conflict and the sale of weapons from Russia to the other side of the conflict is not, however, creating momentum for solving the region’s dilemma. More likely it is further exacerbating the issues of insecurity between the two old rivals in the Caucasus.  

While Russia has tried to play a part in the diplomatic process between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict it also has given contradictory support (to Armenia by placing troops within the country and to Azerbaijan by selling weapons to the Azeri government), leading to an increase in the spread of violence and discord. The violence is spreading beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh region and is now travelling along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Where skirmishes previously consisted only of small-arms fire, today it is more common that exchanges consist of larger-arms fire and rockets.

There are six main obstacles to overcome in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and they all give Russia tremendous difficulty in proving its diplomatic strength. The first is the deep rooted mutual distrust between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The second is that the Azeris and the Armenians think that the conflict should not involve outside forces: they actually believe that outside forces are doing nothing more than aggravating old tensions. The issue of refugees from the region is a third obstacle that must be addressed. Without having a settlement in the near future it will be near impossible to repatriate any of the 800,000 to1,000,000 refugees spread across the region. Fourth, deep mistrust creates security issues between the two countries that extend far beyond the single disputed region. Azerbaijan is incensed that Armenia is ‘occupying’ nearly six of its provinces, but any move to retake those provinces would provoke further feelings of insecurity for Armenia and could be the spark to set off a full-blown war. Trying to get the two sides to release their claims on various parcels of land has been futile. This deep sense of insecurity and impending dread of renewed militia engagement is keeping hundreds of thousands of refugees from returning to their homes.

This leads to the fifth complication: getting either side to agree to a deal or to at least agree to a timeline for renewed diplomatic engagement based on substantive promises and negotiations. The problems in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are deep-rooted. All sides request concessions that must be in place before they will move forward with any plans to reengage. The concessions are not unreasonable, but the timelines in which they are requested cause continuous issues and arguments. Armenia requests that the Nagorno-Karabakh region is left solely in its care, the Azeris request that the Armenians withdraw from the region and return it to Azerbaijan’s control, and the Nagorno-Karabakh region itself will not concede anything unless it is recognized as an autonomous state. These issues continue to boil under the surface, waiting to erupt.

The last and final obstacle that must be overcome in order to find peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is that the parties represented in the negotiating process must come to an agreement on being equal participants at the table. This may seem simple but is in fact arguably the most problematic. There are three parties concerned in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: the Armenians, the Azeris, and the Karabakh Armenians. Even though the region has declared itself an autonomous state, the reality is that such declarations are not recognized by the Armenians or the Azeris. This has subsequently left the self-installed government of Nagorno-Karabakh out of the negotiations entirely. Russia has also shown little support for the autonomous government of Nagorno-Karabakh, further excluding it from the negotiations. This likely has to change if real progress is to be made.

With all the major diplomatic/military operations and maneuvers that Russia has become a part of in the last year, it leaves one to wonder how it will continue to spread resources so thin and still hope to find success. Putin is playing a strategic but potentially risky game in his effort to reestablish the power and glory of Russian international significance.   Indeed, the effects of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh reigniting have implications that would affect not just Russia but also Turkey, Iran, and Syria. The conflict needs a great deal of time and attention to stop festering problems from erupting into an all-out war that would devastate the region far beyond the Caspian. The Russian government needs to seek solutions that would aid in keeping peace, repatriating refugees, and providing relief for the diverse security issues at hand. If it does manage this incredible feat, then it may just be successful in its impassioned desire to be seen as a force for diplomatic good on the world stage. That may seem far-fetched at the moment, but they are still the largest stakes at play.

Dayna Rice

Dayna Rice is a recent graduate of the International Security and Intelligence Studies Program at Bellevue University in Omaha, NE, USA. She is also a veteran of the United States Army.

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